It Looks Like a Hard Winter for Bookstores

It was global news in the book world. The owner of the venerable Strand Bookstore in New York City recently made an emergency plea for the store. Revenue was down 70 percent. Since then, nearly 25,000 orders flooded in approaching $200,000 in sales, crashing the website (although that is only $8 an order if correct).

If my friends at Bob on Books on Facebook are any indication, there is trouble ahead if the pandemic continues. Bottom line: out of 133 comments on a recent question about this, only 5 people indicated they were comfortable going to bookstores on a regular basis (usually where masking was strictly enforced). One person who worked in a bookstore reported a steep drop in customers, but those who came in bought more and puzzles and games were especially popular.

Some are doing curbside pickups. But this takes away the browsing experience and those serendipitous discoveries that you can only make when browsing. We made two trips to our local Half Price Books about six weeks ago, sold a lot of books and bought some. Then infection rates in Ohio nearly tripled. Hanging out waiting for books to be priced somehow doesn’t seem as safe.

A lot of people are obtaining their books through libraries, either by reserving books or downloading digital books. I wouldn’t be surprised if e-book sales have surged because many are buying books online this way. Or they are ordering from online sellers, mainly Amazon or Thriftbooks for used, or a handful of other online sellers. A very small number ordered from local bookstores or online services connected to local stores like bookshop.org.

Then there are the people who came prepared for the pandemic. They have TBR piles that will see them through a year or more of not bookbuying. If this group of booklovers is at all representative of the book buying public, then bookstores are in trouble.

I fear it will only get worse as the rates of infection rise in the U.S. It appears to me that many of us have imposed our own lockdowns–we don’t need a government to do it for us. We really would love to spend time browsing our favorite stores, if they are open. But we really don’t want to update our wills for a bookstore hop. Many indie stores are smaller, cozy affairs. In ordinary times that is inviting. Now it feels kind of dangerous.

It is nothing short of miraculous if your favorite bookseller is not hurting or in danger of going out of business. Like the Strand, Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, facing new lockdowns and an 80% drop in sales has put out a similar plea for online orders. The big, famous stores can do this. Your local indie may not have the same media clout. But their situation is the same or worse, if news stories and personal accounts are any indication.

If you are able, now is a good time to plan your winter reading, stock up on the new releases and old standbys that you have wanted to read. It’s not too early to shop for books to send to friends for Christmas. Maybe you can set up a virtual book club for the winter months with some friends and all order your books from the same store. The point? Amazon is fine and will be around when this is all over. But what about your beloved store?

Maybe one of the best ways to get your mind off your own survival over the next months is to think about how you can help your favorite store survive. Maybe you can talk them up as the place where you get the books you love. Post about them on your social media (as I do about my favorite store on this blog). Or give a gift card or certificate to friends for Christmas, providing the store an immediate cash infusion. You might also give the store some new customers. You might even send the store owner a holiday card with a little something extra stashed inside.

The day will come when we can resume all the normal things we did before the pandemic. When the day comes when we feel safe visiting our favorite stores again (and I know we define “safe” differently), will their doors be open or will we encounter an “out of business” sign or an empty storefront? It’s up to us.

Review: Love, Zac

Love, Zac: Small-Town Football and the Life and Death of an American Boy, Reid Forgrave. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2020.

Summary: The account of Zac Easter, who grew up in the football culture of small town Iowa and his family, played hard, until he began to experience the consequences of repeated concussions, when his life began to unravel.

Zac Easter grew up in small town Iowa in a football family. His father Myles was a player, college and high school coach at his high school. Both his brothers played. Small for his position, he made up for size with intensity. Hit after hit, using his head as a weapon to make up for his size. Hit after hit. Getting his “bell rung” many times. A final concussion and an alert trainer ended his athletic career in his senior year. Sadly, by then the damage was done.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. Zac didn’t know what to call it then. He had problems with short-term memory, impulse control, headaches, and focusing his attention. Things didn’t get better. In fact, additional concussions during a stint in the National Guard compounded the problems.

Reid Forgrave renders a sobering account of Zac’s downward spiral from a happy-go-lucky team captain to the abuse of drugs and alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate, alternating with attempts to get his life back on track, with the support of his family and girlfriend Ali Epperson. It was a spiral that ended one night at his favorite lake, as he took his own life.

Forgrave sets this against the backdrop of the American ideals of football, in which masculinity equates with the physical toughness that shakes off injury and pain, including a few “dings” to the head. Every player has them and carries the wounds of battle with aching knees and other injuries. “Playing hurt” is what “real” men do. Only sissies take the bench.

It’s one thing when it results in a gimpy leg. Then came Mike Webster and Junior Seau and a Pittsburgh researcher working with brain tissue of players who had died early, some by suicide, identified brain plaques that were the sign of something with the ominous name of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. This was the result of the brain’s attempt to heal itself from repeated concussive injuries.

Zac learned of this research and began to suspect that this is what had happened to him, and was going on inside of his brain. He visits a number of doctors, but none really can make him better. Somehow, he finishes college and works for a time with his brother.

Forgrave chronicles the struggle through Zac’s journals and texts. From one entry:

“Working out was my only escape when I realized something was off with me from the concussions. For years, working out has been the only thing that actually made me feel human again and made me feel less depressed. The only way I knew how to handle my depression and feel good inside was by my one my faith in god [sic], listening to music, lifting, and running. Many people just thought that I was super motivated and determined to be army special forces, but in reality I kept up the super muscle image to look tough on the outside when I was really crying everyday on the inside….It’s hard to hold back tears even now when I think about the times I was feeling so down from depression that I loaded up my .22 rifle or shotgun and put it to my head…”

Zac Easter

Zac’s words are supplemented by the author’s interviews with family, coaches, trainer, and girlfriend. A common theme that runs through all these accounts is an ambivalence toward football. These are people who love their football and even think it a positive influence on young men. And it took Zac from them.

This ambivalence is set against a growing national ambivalence from the numbers of former players afflicted with CTE. On the one hand is reforms to rules on kickoffs and tackling to attempt to take the head out of the game. Each year new helmets come out and concussion protocols are thoroughly implemented. On the other hand is the evidence that even sub-concussive injuries may be causing damage, and players endure hundreds of those. Even when you take the unnecessary roughness out of the game, there is the necessary roughness, without which you would have a game of a different character.

I grew up watching the Saturday night fights on TV when boxing was a big deal, and the epic matches with Ali, Frazer, and Foreman. Ray Mancini grew up in my home town, went to my wife’s high school. When he knocked out Duk-koo Kim in the 14th round of a match, resulting in a fatal brain injury to Kim, Mancini’s life changed, and so did boxing. Forgrave raises the same questions about football. Despite its place in our culture, is it time to ask if our entertainment and the values the game purports to teach are worth the destructive effects on men’s bodies, even if they willing accept them? Men like Zac.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

[Note: Contains coarse language and explicit material.]

Review: Leading Lives That Matter, Second Edition

Leading Lives That Matter (Second Edition), Edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2020.

Summary: An anthology on what the well-lived life looks like exploring four important vocabularies and six vital questions through a range of religious and secular readings.

How might we live lives that matter? To whom or what will I listen as I discern my vocation. With and for whom will I live? What obligation do I have to human or other life? How shall I tell the story of my life. All of these are important questions for anyone who wants their lives to matter. This collection of nearly ninety readings, forty-seven new to this edition help to explore through a variety of genres these questions. Both religious and secular resources are included. The book is organized around four “vocabularies” used about the well-led life, and six important questions. Here are the vocabularies and questions along with a reading that particularly stood out (although the overall selection is outstanding).

Vocabularies

Authenticity: Charles Taylor’s “The Ethics of Authenticity”. Taylor argues that authenticity is not just a matter of doing one’s thing, but an identity formed by wrestling with deep questions of truth.

Virtue: “On Love” by Josef Pieper is one of the best and most concise essays on the different types of love, what we mean by the love of God and love for God.

Exemplarism: To understand the importance of exemplars, what they are and how we might observe them, I could not do better than Linda Zagzebski’s reading “Why Exemplarism.”

Vocation: The readings here were some of the strongest with contributions from Lee Hardy, C.S. Lewis, Denise Levertov, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I choose the one by Charles D. Badcock on “Choosing” who argues that vocation is not finding the one “right” job, but living for the will of God and doing what we please.

Questions:

Must My Job Be the Primary Source of My Identity? The essay by Dorothy L. Sayers, “Why Work?” is marked by her clear thinking and the idea of serving the work, serving God in our work.

To Whom and to What Should I Listen as I Decide What to Do for a Living? The selection from Lois Lowry’s The Giver in which each young member of the community is assigned their work by the elders explores the role of others in our choices of work and captures why this book is so well-loved. Among other good selections are those by Albert Schweitzer and James Baldwin.

With Whom and For Whom Shall I Live? Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” explores the encounter of two orphans, one black and one white, later in life and the choice of whether childhood friendship or race would determine their relations. The essay by Martin Luther King, Jr., “The World House” is also powerful.

Is a Balanced Life Possible and Preferable to a Life Focused Primarily on Work? Perhaps the most thought-provoking is the article by Karen S. Sibert that answers that for some professional jobs, the answer is “no.” The reading is titled “Don’t Quit This Day Job.” Perhaps offsetting this is the concluding reading of the section, a selection from The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel

What Are My Obligations to Future Human and Other Life? Larry Rasmussen writes a fictional letter to his grandson, “A Love Letter from the Holocene to the Anthropocene” on the failure of his generation to conserve the environment for that grandchild in terms of options, quality, and access. He raises profound questions about our failures to future generations. The section also features portions of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si.

How Shall I Tell The Story of My Life? The section begins with the marvelous poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost and ends with Michael T. Kaufman’s “Robert McG Thomas, 60, Chronicler of Unsung Lives.” This last is the obituary of the New York Times noted obituary writer whose obituaries were stories that captured and honored the essence of generally unknown people. It makes you think about what stories will people tell of our lives.

I suspect the primary audience of a work like this is a capstone-type class still offered by many undergraduate colleges, reflecting on vocation and life’s big questions. But it is worthwhile for anyone examining their lives and sense of calling, not only for the vocabulary and the questions but for the excellence of the readings that hold up a mirror to our lives.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Tales of the Jazz Age

Tales of the Jazz Age, F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, Open Road Media, 2016 (first published in 1922).

Summary: A collection of eleven short stories, the most famous of which is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

For those who only know F. Scott Fitzgerald, this collection of short stories reveals other sides of the mind of Fitzgerald. Personally, I found this collection uneven. Only one seems to be truly profound, “O Russet Witch!,” a reflection on the choice between safe conventionality, and the risky, unconstrained life.

The most famous in the set was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Fitzgerald turns a thought exercise about being born old and growing backward into a story.

“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is kind of a grown up fantasy in which a school friend is invited to spend a holiday in an off-the-map Shangri-la, complete with an attractive sister, until he learns of the secret of the place, and its sinister impliction.

Two in the collection were amusing. “The Camel’s Back” revolves around a costume party and a camel costume for two. “Porcelain and Pink” is a one act play set in a suds-filled bath-tub.

Then there is the pathetic in “May Day” in which old classmates from Yale meet up, one down on his luck, and full of self-pity. Not an attractive figure, and his friends are no better.

To be honest, the other stories in this collection seemed to me to be caricatures, or just plain strange. The only virtue in some of these stories was that they were short. For those who are Fitzgerald fans, of course you will want to read these. For the rest of us, I felt there were a few good stories and the rest were mere padding.

Review: Blessed Are The Nones

Blessed Are The Nones, Stina Kielsmeier-Cook. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A memoir of a Christian woman coming to terms, with the help of some Catholic nuns, with her husband’s de-conversion.

I was eavesdropping, of all things, when my husband’s deconversion first hit me.

I was sitting on the floor of the guest bedroom in Josh’s childhood home in North Carolina, straining to make out the voices filtering through the hallway–the steady deep timbre of my father-in-law’s voice and the more volatile ups and downs of my husband’s as he explained that he no longer thought God was real.

-Stina Kielsmeier-Cook, p. 1.

Imagine a young couple who met on a mission trip, growing in love, even as they share a deep vision for doing good in God’s word. Their shared faith and love leads them to marry and begin a family. And then one of them can no longer believe.

What would you do when the faith that brought you together is no longer shared? When your spouse would prefer a long run or a hike in the woods to going to church? How do you raise your children? How do you explain your spouse’s absence when you go to church? How do you sustain your own faith when the person closest to you can no longer believe? How do you keep a marriage together when you no longer share what you believe most important in life?

That is the situation Stina Kielsmeier-Cook faced when her husband stopped believing in God. He wished she had stopped believing as well. But she couldn’t, as much as she struggled with her own doubts. This memoir is her account of a journey that went from hoping and praying for Josh to return to faith to learning to live in an interfaith marriage “through which God can move.”

Providentially, she discovers a group of Salesian nuns in her neighborhood and begins to learn what it means to live a life with God without a husband to share it. At first she thinks the answer is “spiritual singleness,” a phrase that comes to her on a nature walk. Turns out the nuns aren’t too crazy about that. There is the pesky thing of vows, theirs and hers. Hers have nothing about “as long as you both shall believe.”

The memoir offers an account of a fifteen month period. As she prays with the sisters, she comes to the place of relinquishing her ideas of how things should work out with Josh, coming to a place of seeing her work as loving Josh. She proposes a “Nuns and Nones” group with the sisters, that takes off, though not with Josh, who prefers an informal group of interfaith couples who talk about their experiences over good food.

There are the moments of hope, where Josh joins Stina for communion at her church that practiced an open table. At one point, he acknowledges that he loves God, by which he means “The Mystery.” She talks about the pain Josh experiences when Josh’s father speaks with deep love about being saddened that Josh would not share eternity with him. She comes to a place where she leaves such questions to God. As she becomes a Visitation Companion with the sisters, she not only learns of new practices, but of women saints who also become companions on the journey.

This is a finely written memoir. It does not neatly tie off the loose ends of Josh’s deconversion. Josh still doesn’t believe. It’s honest about the differences, yet also moving in the embrace of love for the other both embrace. Josh goes on a picnic with the nuns, and Stina goes mushroom hunting with Josh’s grad school friends and takes the family to cheer him on his marathon race. One of the beautiful things about this book is how well Stina portrays Josh. I found myself at many points saying, “what a guy!” For those who find themselves in a similar situation, this is an honest yet hopeful book for how two people can continue to love each other even when they no longer share what they once thought the most important thing in life.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–The 1918 Pandemic in Youngstown

October of 2020 does not appear to be a good month in our current pandemic. As I write, Ohio has registered its largest number of cases in a single day. October of 1918 was a dark month in Youngstown as well. Surveying the Vindicators for October of 1918, the month began on a hopeful note, and in fact the lead headlines the whole month concerned the end of World War I. In the course of the month, the H1N1 Influenza of 1918 would ravage Youngstown. A milder form of the illness had arisen during the spring, but it returned with a vengeance in the fall.

October 4: It was reported that Camp Sherman, an Army camp in Chillicothe, was recovering from the flu. No indication of the flu yet in Youngstown. Pennsylvania, which was hit earlier closed theaters, places of amusement, and saloons.

October 5: On the front page, there is a report of the influenza spreading rapidly in Ohio with 15-20,000 cases. Cincinnati closed its amusement places and saloons. There was a call for nurses to volunteer to go to Camp Taylor in Kentucky.

October 6: Camp Sherman reports 143 deaths from the influenza, which was striking down young men in alarming numbers. The Vindicator also reports that the influenza is hitting camps around the country with 17,383 new cases on Saturday alone.

October 7: An “Impressive and Inspiring” Czecho-Slovak parade took place. It is thought that this, like a similar parade in Philadelphia, served as a “super-spreader” event in Youngstown. Cases exploded after this event.

October 10: The first four deaths from the influenza occur in Youngstown. Twenty children in a children’s home are down with the influenza. Mayor Craver announced a meeting of the board of health to close schools, churches, and all public gatherings.

October 15: “Gloom Enshrouds City Because of Influenza” is the headline for the front page story about the spread of influenza in Youngstown. On the previous day a general quarantine went into effect. Downtown Youngstown was a ghost town, except for hotel lobbies. Emergency hospitals (at that time there was only St. Elizabeth’s and Youngstown Hospital, later South Side Hospital) have been set up at Baldwin Kindergarten at Front and Champion and at South High School, which can accommodate 400 beds. 193 cases were reported in the last day in a city of 120,000. One silver lining was that draft calls were stopped. Nearby East Palestine was hard hit with 1,000 cases.

October 16: The Board of Health reports 923 cases and 15 deaths so far with 4 deaths in the last day. Meanwhile, Cleveland reported 800 new cases in a day. The chief of police issued a warning to saloons violating quarantine orders by leaving their back doors open to customers when they were supposed to be closed. They would receive a $100 fine for the first offense and jail time the second time.

Instructions for nurses giving home care, Vindicator, October 16, 1918

October 27 (the next edition available online): Both locally and in the state, the report is that the epidemic is unchanged. There were 112 new cases reported, lower than the over 300 cases reported daily early in the week. Statewide 5,000 new cases were reported. Ten deaths were reported in Youngstown for the day. The efforts of Red Cross workers were recognized, contributing 8747 surgical articles and 7851 hospital garments, among other supplies. The death toll at Camp Sherman was reported at 1,053.

October 29: Industries in the Mahoning Valley, and Youngstown Sheet and Tube, in particular, are cited for their efforts in preventing illnesses on the job. They operated six emergency hospitals, and experienced no production delays. 400 new cases were reported and 20 deaths. Statewide, there was some evidence things were easing but quarantines would remain in place until at least November 15. Collegiate football was banned in Illinois.

October 30: 524 new cases and 29 deaths were reported in the last day in Youngstown, a new high. South High School teacher Dr. Roy Kittle died of the influenza after volunteering to nurse patients at the school, converted to an emergency hospital.

October 31: Patient counts from the three emergency hospitals (the third being at Jefferson School) suggest that infections are beginning to recede. Sheet and Tube was inoculating employees with a serum to give them immunity to the flu developed by the Rockefeller Institute. Statewide, the death toll reached 5,000.

Cases began to wane after October, which was the worst month. By December, cases were down enough for theaters to re-open. Outbreaks continued into 1919 and early 1920 but the worst was over. The worst was the dark days of October 1918. One study of death certificates in the period of the epidemic indicated that men died in greater numbers than women and immigrants had the highest death rates. There was no coordinated state or national effort to deal with the outbreak, leaving local health officials to deal with the epidemic. Public health officials conceded that the virus had to run its course. They struggled with groups that held large gatherings contrary to health orders. There were lots of ads that promoted patent medicine remedies. The most notable shortage was of Vicks Vap-O-Rub!

I share this as a look-back only. These are two different epidemics, different viruses. Far more young people died of the influenza. Some have drawn lessons from 1918 for what might be done or should be done (or shouldn’t) in our present pandemic. I won’t, other than to note that front-line responders, then as now responded with courage and compassion. About all I would suggest was that the 1918 pandemic receded, and so will this one. Many avoided getting sick by foregoing normal social activities and by following the quarantine. They were around for the Roaring Twenties. Let’s hope there is something ahead like that for all of us! Stay safe, Youngstown friends!

[Please do not use this post for debates about the current pandemic or public health or political policies! This is for historic purposes only.]

Early Fall 2020 Book Previews

So many interesting books have arrived in my mailbox in recent months. I won’t have any trouble finding something good to read this fall. You’ll be seeing reviews of these in coming months, but I thought you might like to know about them now. Some are timely, some look just plain interesting. So here are the books in that stack.

The Message of Wisdom, Daniel J. Estes. Estes writes on the theme of Wisdom in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Dan is a friend and I’ve had the joy of hearing him teach some of this material.

Rebels and Exiles, Matthew S. Harmon. A study of sin that leads to exile and the hope of restoration that runs through scripture.

Splendour in the Dark, Jerry Root. A book for Inklings lovers. This is a study of Dymer, a narrative poem C.S. Lewis wrote before coming to Christian faith.

Dreaming Dreams for Christian Higher Education, David S. Guthrie. A senior faculty member describes his vision and journey in the Christian higher education setting.

Healing Racial Trauma, Sheila Wise Rowe. People of color live a life of trauma. Recent events have opened old wounds. Rowe as a counselor explores the healing of these traumas.

The Fantasy Literature of England, Colin Manlove. A study of English fantasy literature as a reflection of English culture.

Reimagining Apologetics, Justin Ariel Bailey. An alternative approach to traditional apologetics focusing on imagination, aesthetics, and the affective.

McGowan’s Call, Rob Smith. A collection of short stories on the rise and fall of a young pastor set in southwest Ohio.

Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes, E. Randolph Richards and Richard James. In the West we read a Bible written in a collectivist culture with individualist eyes. The authors help us recalibrate our vision to understand the biblical world.

Christ and the Kingdoms of Men, David C. Innes. A political theology that argues for the nobility of engagement in political life.

Wisdom From Babylon, Gordon T. Smith. The author explores what it means to provide leadership to the church in a secular age.

Sinless Flesh, Rafael Nogueira Bello. An argument that in Christ’s incarnation, he not only assumed human nature but fallen human nature.

Resurrecting Justice, Douglas Harink. Argues that justice is overlooked as a theme in the book of Romans.

Angry Weather, Frederike Otto. Using an approach called attribution science, shows how human-induced climate change is resulting in a variety of extreme weather events.

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley. Presents the rich tradition of biblical interpretation in the Black church addressing the struggle for justice and offering hope.

Sustaining Grace, Edited by Scott J. Hagley, Karen Rohrer, Michael Gehrling. Explores the dynamic between church planting efforts and mainline denominational structures.

The Liturgy of Politics, Kaitlyn Schiess. Recognizes both how the church’s politics are shaped by our habits and practices, and how we need to recover historic Christian practices that shape us around gospel truths.

The Enneagram for Spiritual Formation, A.J. Sherrill. How the Enneagram can contribute to spiritual transformation.

Spiritual Practices of Jesus, Catherine J. Wright. Looks at the ways Luke portrays simplicity, humility, and prayer in the life of Jesus and how this portrayal shaped practices in the ancient church.

Bavinck, James Eglinton. Explores the life that helped shape the theology of this formidable Reformed theologian.

Twenty books that you’ll see on Bob on Books. But there may be something you’d like to see sooner. The links in the titles will take you to the publishers website for each book. Enjoy!

Pandemic Fatigue

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

What day is it? They all seem alike. I haven’t been out to eat at a restaurant since early March. I haven’t hugged my son and daughter-in-law since early in the year. All my conversations, except with my wife, are on Zoom, except for brief exchanges when I’m out for walks in my neighborhood. I miss singing with my choir–except for virtual recordings (I did last night). I hadn’t reckoned on this going for seven months, and perhaps that many more.

I don’t think most of us did, and it is hard on all of us.

And it is very tempting to just say, “I’m over with this.” Can’t I just throw a big football party with all my friends? Or celebrate Thanksgiving with lots of friends and food?

And then I remember I’ve made it through seven months. We are in our sixties, and that is good news. By God’s grace, we haven’t gotten sick when others in our age group have gotten very sick. We personally know of people who have died–our age or younger. Perhaps you do as well.

I’m also reminded of life challenges that have lasted into years. And there were times when I wanted to throw in the towel. Caring for a parent with terminal colon cancer. Walking through each parent’s final years, the calls in the night (never good), the emergency trips home. There was a graduate degree while working a full time job with a young family. There were the half marathons I ran. Walking with my wife through close to a year of cancer treatments and recovery. Working a number of years to accomplish work goals that couldn’t be done in a year.

I’ll bet you have stories like that. You were tired. You even were tempted to quit. Why didn’t you? Those memories and the answer to why you didn’t quit might be important in your life right now. It might be your love for someone else who was dear to you. It might be a goal that answers to a deep calling in your life. It might be a faith that believes goodness and truth triumph in the end.

What practices sustained you when you had to say “no” to many good things in life? Maybe it was a few quiet minutes with some music and a glass of wine. Maybe it was a walk in the park. Maybe you read the Bible or said your prayers. Reaching out to a trusted friend with whom you can be your unfiltered self. And you kept doing these things as you were able.

While none of us have gone through a pandemic before, many of us know what it is to go through hard things that aren’t over in a few days or weeks. We know what it is to be fatigued, and find the resources to keep going.

And if we haven’t? Then this is our time to develop the grit, the resolve, the stick-to-it-iveness that will serve us well in any other challenges we face in our lives. What story will you tell about this time?

Why does it matter? Because the infectiousness of this disease means the action of one could affect 10 or 50 or 100 others. In a highly individualistic country, it reminds us how our lives are inextricably intertwined. That party could result in the deaths of grandparents who weren’t even present.

Have you ever thought, “I’ve made it this far, I don’t want to lose all I’ve worked for when I’m getting closer to making it through.” We’re a lot closer to a vaccine than last March. We’re closer to when this virus will recede if not disappear.

As a Christian, I do not fear death. But my faith also teaches me that life is never to be thrown away heedlessly. These have been good months of reading and writing, communicating and planning, building and clearing out. They have been months of clarifying and simplifying. They have been months of trying new things. I’ve been fortunate to work, and work as hard in many ways as any time in life. They are months for which I’m glad I’ve been alive. By God’s grace I hope to be doing these things for a while yet and I want to be around when we can gather and party and sing again–without masks.

I want that for you as well. Let’s hang in there together.

Review: Jack

Jack, Marilynne Robinson. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020

Summary: The story of an inter-racial love affair between Jack Ames Boughton and Della Miles, and Jack’s struggle to find grace.

We first met Jack Ames Boughton and his then-common-law wife Della Miles and their son Robert in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. They flee to Gilead, hoping to find refuge in an era where inter-racial marriage was not merely disapproved of but illegal. Jack, a minister’s son always has lived under a cloud–a petty thief who had impregnated and then abandoned a young woman who fled to Chicago.

Jack picks up the story after that episode and narrates the story of the forbidden love that grew between Jack and Della. After a stint in prison for a theft he hadn’t committed, he returns to St. Louis where he encounters Della when he retrieves school papers that slip out of her grasp in a rainstorm. They develop a deeper relationship after improbably spending a night locked inside a cemetery–a long night of conversation, a relationship knit together by a common love of literature. She knows something of his questionable background, seeing the debt-collectors that dog his tracks, the scar on his cheek that hadn’t been there before.

That is hardly the only impediment they face. Della Miles is the daughter of a bishop in father’s denomination–a group committed to black separatism, an effort to achieve respectable lives without outside help from whites. She is a high school teacher, a respectable position. An affair with a white man is illegal, threatens her job, and faces the staunch disapproval of her family.

Jack wrestles with the tension between reforming his life, working as a shoe salesman and dance partner rather than turning back to his old ways. He struggles between breaking off the affair and his attraction to her, which she returns until they become lovers.

He lives under the cloud of his apostate life as a “son of perdition” who longs for grace but doesn’t believe it is possible, and who messes up everything he touches. His brother Teddy maintains the tenuous tie with his family, leaving envelopes of money for a brother who never quite seems to be able to make it on his own. This “grace” only seems to remind him of all the ways his life has been a disappointment. Della represents a longed-for love, but for Jack it is never simple. This love brings further heartbreak, yet seems preferable to attempting to reform one’s life alone.

Robinson offers a story that doesn’t neatly tie up all the loose threads. We long for Jack to sort out his life without Della. Then we long for a wonderful story of racial reconciliation. None of that happens. The choices of love, of finding grace for these two are complicated. We’ve known people for whom life has gone hard, despite their deepest desires otherwise. Jack gives us an unsettling narrative, framed in the Jim Crow South, exploring an old theme of forbidden love.

How Then Shall I Vote?

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There are numerous discussions on how one should make decisions about for whom to vote. I approach this question as a Christian and the first thing I note is what an exceptional thing in Christian history it is to be able to vote for those who serve us in government. For much of history and even today in many parts of the world, Christians have no say over who leads their government and must figure out what Christian faithfulness looks like in these circumstances, sometimes under regimes openly hostile to Christians. The U.S. recognition of the right to vote for all our citizens (with certain exceptions) is a precious right that should be vigorously protected for all as a recognition of our common humanity in the image of God.

For many Christians, their primary criteria is where their candidate lines up on the issues. My difficulty is several-fold. One is which issues? My difficulty is that when I consider biblical teaching, I find no party whose platform conforms to biblical teaching across the board. Also, there are differences among Christians about how to achieve certain aims, or whether the aim of Christian political engagement is the conformity of a pluralistic country to biblical morality specific to followers of Christ. There are many issues, for example local issues, for which there may not be a clear biblical principle.

I would contend that the Bible prioritizes character and competence, that I might summarize in the phrase, “skillful shepherds.” Psalm 78:72 pays this tribute to David: “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.”

First of all, the psalmist emphasizes the integrity of David’s heart. David wasn’t perfect, but when confronted with wrongdoing, he admitted his wrongdoing and the justice of God’s judgments. I grew up in Youngstown and saw the impact of a half century or more of political corruption, where political leaders would say they were serving the people when they were beholden to criminal elements and lining their own pockets. As a young voter, I saw how Richard Nixon betrayed the trust of the people in the Watergate cover-up, helping undermine confidence in those in public office.

Second, he describes his work as leading with skillful hands. I want to find not only a person of integrity, but one who has demonstrated skill in the requirements of the office to which that person aspires. I want to see that in their family life, their business affairs, or whatever prior office they have served in. Perhaps this reflects the experience of hiring people based not on their aspirations but on the basis of their deeds done. Doris Kearns Goodwin highlights Lincoln’s skills in Team of Rivals in uniting and calling out the best from a cabinet made up of Lincoln’s political rivals.

Finally, David is described as a shepherd. Good shepherds do not drive sheep, they lead them, going ahead, interposing their own bodies between any threat and the sheep. In John 10, Jesus says that he knows sheep by name. Elsewhere, he says good shepherds care for all the sheep, going after the stray. A good shepherd does not have favorites or those they ignore. A good shepherd serves the sheep, not oneself.

One of the challenges of leadership is that one cannot know the future. No political leader in the world had a platform article or position on responding to a pandemic in 2019. The character and competence of leaders has played a significant role in the differences in outcomes in a virus that knew no distinctions of people, or state or national boundaries.

No political leader is perfect, nor are any of the rest of us for that matter. What I want to look at as best as I can determine is the basic trajectory of the person’s life up to now. Only then do I turn to issues, especially when the contest is between two people of integrity and skill, a choice to be wished for, but not always achieved. I also keep in mind the important but limited purpose of political leaders in God’s economy. At their best, they uphold justice and maintain order and pursue the flourishing of all our citizens, but they cannot bring in the new heaven and the new earth, nor can they effect the inner transformation of the gospel. They can create or abolish laws, establish programs, make policies and appoint judges. But so much of the fabric of society is sustained by how we “do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God” in our neighborhoods, businesses, and wider communities.

I neither think it is my place to tell you how I am voting, nor how you should (if you have not already!). But I know there are some of you, like me, who are conscientious about making these decisions and wrestle over the question of issues and campaign promises, and I hope my own discernment process is helpful. It is how I think about voting, whether for presidents or local officials. It is how I’ve made these decisions for much of my life. It’s how I will make these decisions this November. Stay well, friends.


[I have no time to respond to standard campaign slogans or tropes or gaslighting or trolls. I will just delete such comments. I’ve not advocated for or against any candidate. If you do, I will delete that. Serious questions and discussion are always welcome.]